Mark Lanegan and ‘Mack the Knife’

One of the highlights of Mark Lanegan’s enchanting concert tonight at the Old Town School of Folk Music was his performance of the classic Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht song “Mack the Knife,” which he recorded for his new album, the covers collection Imitations. After the concert, I was talking about that song with some friends. It has been a subject of fascination for me — how this grim ballad of murder ever became a jaunty, jazzy pop hit. Lanegan’s version ranks up there with the best, thanks to those gritty, sandpaper vocals of his. But I don’t know that there is such a thing as a definitive version of “Mack the Knife.”

For one thing, which lyrics are definitive? Marc Blitzstein’s translation is the most famous English version, but it doesn’t convey all of the terrifying details in Brecht’s original German lyrics. Here’s a translation I made myself, back when I was taking German classes. (I haven’t stayed in practice, and I’m nowhere close to fluent in German these days. Feel free to offer corrections or suggested changes.) I tried to make the translation as literal as possible.

The Ballad of Mack the Knife

And the shark, oh, it has teeth
And it wears them in its face.
And Macheath, he has a knife,
But this knife, no one sees. 

Oh, how red is the shark’s fin,
when the blood flows.
Mack the Knife, he wears a glove,
From which no atrocity can be read.

In the Thames’ green waters,
People suddenly fall.
Is it either plague or cholera?
No, it means Macheath’s been around.

On a beautiful blue Sunday,
A dead man lies on the beach
And a man goes around the corner
Known as Mackie the Knife.

And Schul Meier is still missing
And so many rich men,
Mackie the Knife has his money,
But no one can prove anything.

Jenny Towler was found
With a knife in her breast,
And on the dock goes Macheath,
Who knows nothing at all.

Where is Alfons Gilte, the cabman?
Will this ever come to light?
Anyone could know.
Macheath knows nothing.

And the great fire in Soho,
Seven children and an old man.
In the crowd, Mackie the Knife —
He’s not asked and doesn’t know.

And the underaged widow
Whose name everyone knows,
Woke up and was raped.
Mackie, what was your price?

For some are in darkness
And some are in light.
One sees those in light,
But those in darkness, one sees not.

The original German lyrics:

Die Moritat von Mackie Messer

Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne
und die trägt er im Gesicht
und Macheath, der hat ein Messer
doch das Messer sieht man nicht.

Ach, es sind des Haifischs Flossen
rot, wenn dieser Blut vergießt.
Mackie Messer trägt ‘nen Handschuh
drauf man keine Untat liest.

An der Themse grünem Wasser
Fallen plötzlich Leute um!
Es ist weder Pest noch Cholera
Doch es heißt: Macheath geht um.

An ‘nem schönen blauen Sonntag
liegt ein toter Mann am Strand
und ein Mensch geht um die Ecke
den man Mackie Messer nennt.

Und Schmul Meier bleibt verschwunden
und so mancher reiche Mann
und sein Geld hat Mackie Messer
dem man nichts beweisen kann.

Jenny Towler ward gefunden
mit ‘nem Messer in der Brust
und am Kai geht Mackie Messer
der von allem nichts gewußt.

Wo ist Alfons Gilte, der Fuhrherr?
Kommt das je ans Sonnenlicht?
Wer es immer wissen könnte —
Mackie Messer weiß nicht. 

Und das große Feuer in Soho
sieben Kinder und ein Greis —
in der Menge Mackie Messer, den
man nicht fragt und der nichts weiß.

Und die minderjährige Witwe
deren Namen jeder weiß
wachte auf und war geschändet —
Mackie, welches war dein Preis?

Denn die einen sind im Dunkeln
und die and’ren sind im Licht,
und man siehet die im Lichte,
die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht.